Escape Pennsylvania's trout crowds for Ohio's steelhead rivers

A different kind of trout fishing

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PAINESVILLE, Ohio -- It's elbow to elbow on many Pennsylvania waters and likely to stay that way through the first weeks of the statewide season for brown, rainbow and brook trout. The best way for trout anglers to avoid the crowds is to target another kind of trout.

In the crowded narrow corridor south of Pennsylvania's 51-mile Lake Erie shoreline, steelhead spawning runs are waning or over, and trout season regulations now apply: 9-inch minimum combined species, two of which may be lake trout through Sept. 2.

But westward across the state line, wildlife officials stock a steelhead strain acquired from Michigan's Little Manistee River. They're less genetically random than the Pennsylvania fish and their spawning season is longer -- October through early May. The fishing is spread out across Ohio's 312 miles of lakefront and stretches dozens of miles inland on the main stem and tributaries of large mostly gravel-bottomed rivers including the Vermillion, Rocky, Chagrin, Grand and Conneaut. Ohio steelhead catches typically average 25 inches and weigh upwards of 6 pounds.

Some Ohio steelheading will seem familiar to Keystone State anglers -- throwing spawn sacks with a spinning rod works everywhere. But with elbow room unheard of in Pennsylvania's corner of Steelhead Alley, fly anglers in Ohio span the distances with two-handed Spey and switch rods, center-pinners get long perfect drifts and drift boat guides maneuver in the current to give their clients positional advantage. It's a different kind of trout fishing.

In early April, with waters slowly dropping on the Grand, George Douglas, a Washington state fishing writer, editor of Kype Magazine ( and professional steelhead guide, reported three consecutive days of outstanding drift boat and bank fishing with 40-plus hookups.

"The Little Manistee steelhead are more genetically hardwired to run in the spring in good numbers. Lake County is in the center [of steelhead country] and there's consistent opportunity -- the Chagrin and Grand are just really heavy hitters this time of year," said Douglas, who rents a house in Northeast Ohio for the annual spring steelhead runs. "I look for fish behind the spawning areas -- not on the redds or fishing to spawning fish, but behind those sections where the fish are very active keying in on egg patterns."

Inducted into the Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame in 2009, Douglas is the author of eight books, including the critically acclaimed "Complete Guide to the Salmon River, Vols. 1 and 2" (Outdoor Productions, 1993, 1999). In his new book "The Fishing Gods" (Castle Douglas, 2013), he combines steelhead strategies and fly recipes with the philosophical insights of 16 elite steelhead anglers, including his own.

"It all starts when we're kids and somebody takes us fishing. It just ignites this passion within us," he said. "Fishing is something that stays entrenched within us, weaving in and out of our lives and becoming kind of the antidote to the turmoils -- a natural stress reliever."

Douglas said that while researching the new book, he noticed common themes in the explanations top steelheaders gave for their passion for fly fishing.

"An appreciation for fishing history kept repeating itself," he said. "They spoke of these anglers back in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Despite the modern technology we have, they were doing all the same things we're doing now, maybe in a better fashion. Also, they all talked about using fishing to help others -- getting kids involved, helping with charities. It wasn't just about catching fish."

Not that there's anything wrong with that. Late season in Ohio, Douglas recommends a 7-weight rod, "beefed up" leaders and heavy hooks.

"Don't just show up with your box of Pennsylvania trout flies. The hooks will straighten out," he said. "But the flies are the same -- a No. 14 Hare's Ear or Pheasant Tail Nymph are good. On bigger water, break it down into two or three grids and fish each one the same as you would in Pennsylvania."

This time of year, three techniques work best, he said.

"Bottom bouncing flies [tight-line nymphing], I like the leader to be the same length as the rod with the first half a heavier 20-pound test and the second half 10- to 8-pound test, and put the split shot halfway up the leader," he said. "For indicator fishing, I like a Thingamabobber and BB shot 6 inches above the fly and a little weight half way up -- with a good mend and a good dead drift, it gets the fly into the deeper pools. And for swinging, no lead, just a heavy sink tip line that gets the presentation down, a 2 1/2-foot leader and a tube fly or Intruder pattern. Cast 45 degrees downstream and swing the fly across the current all the way to the dangle."

The drive to Ohio's prime steelhead region is about the same as the run up to Erie. It's 135 miles (2 hours, 15 minutes) from Pittsburgh to Geneva, Ohio (north on Interstate 79 to the Pennsylvania Turnpike I-76, east into Ohio, north on Ohio Route 11 and west on I-90). An Ohio nonresident one-day fishing license ($11) and three-day tourist license ($19) can be easily printed on a home computer (

Meet George

George Douglas will talk about "The Fishing Gods" at two Pennsylvania book signings, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at an Oil Creek Trout Unlimited meeting at King's Family Restaurant, Route 8 and Route 62, Franklin (, and 5-7:30 p.m. April 25 at International Angler in Robinson (412-788-8088).

"The Fishing Gods" is available at International Angler and at


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